Mirror, Mirror

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?”


Magic mirrors have a habit of showing up in fairy tales and legends. The most famous, of course, was the mirror owned by the wicked queen in Snow White. But don’t think that magic mirrors were solely the province of the wicked queen. There were plenty of evil sorcerers, kings, and especially evil grand viziers who had magic mirrors of one sort or another. Given how ubiquitous those mirrors were, one can only imagine that entire fantasy economies must have depended on their manufacture. But that, as they say, is another story.

The interesting thing about magic mirrors is that what they show us is, well, us, with an emphasis on making us feel good about it. That’s the problem with magic mirrors: when we look into them long enough, we might actually start to believe that we really do look that good. If that happens, anything that spoils the illusion becomes a problem to remove rather than feedback that things might not be as they seem.

“Sorry Queen, but it is Snow White who’s better looking by day or night.”

We all know how that worked out.

In a business setting, the magic mirror is the people we work with. When we work as part of a team, we can see everyone on the team: we can see what they do, we react to their work, we hear their words. The one person we cannot see is ourselves. Is our work good or is it poor? Are we behaving intelligently, foolishly, wisely, or carelessly? We can only really tell by how we are reflected in the eyes of our team mates. Without that feedback, we have no point of reference. Sometimes, the mirror doesn’t show us what we want to see.

This mirroring phenomenon is a big part of how a group of people who happen to be wandering in the same direction learn how to come together as a team. We look at others and we see how people act, look, and dress. Because team members always seek some degree of similarity, we try to mimic what we see so that we’ll feel like part of the team. This is especially true when we are new to the team (when everyone on the team is new, each person is doing this. That can make things a bit tricky). Similarity brings the team together, but differences make it effective. The trick is making use of the first without losing the second.

Assuming that each member of the team sees and reflects the appropriate actions, appearances, and behaviors, the team has a much better chance of coalescing and achieving very high levels of performance. On the other hand, if people don’t reflect to one another or, in other words, see too much difference, the team doesn’t come together, members are less loyal, and the team is more likely to dissolve.

Points of similarity can be many things: behavior, clothing, common goals, an outside threat, annoyance at a particular member of the team, skin color, gender, etc. Some of these work better than others. Superficial characteristics such as physical appearance and gender can certainly help bring a team together, although at the risk of creating a more homogenous team. Simply looking at people who look like you might feel good, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to stimulate creative thought; for that, difference helps. As Terry Pratchett observed, we go on vacation so that we can come back to view home through new eyes. Seeing those who don’t look like us helps us consider multiple options and perspectives, an important component of successful products and services.

Bringing a team together against an outside threat has good short-term results, but often only succeeds in suppressing disagreements and preventing the group from learning how to argue effectively and develop consensus. Unifying around annoyance at a particular member of the team creates its own special set of problems. Both of these approaches tend to suppress difference in favor conformity. Common goals, interests, imitating behaviors, and having a common vision work best at building similarity while preserving differences.

How a group unifies then determines who else it lets in. Humans naturally form in- and out-groups, and we are all subject to viewing members of our in-groups more favorably than members of our out-groups. That means that we will tend to favor those who resemble the people around us. Over time, the group will reflect the dominant identifying characteristics: be that skin color, a penchant for puns, gender, style of dress, incisive problem solving capabilities, and so on. The magic mirror is telling us what the group looks like and, by extension, what new members should look like. And, because, we’re human, we are also very good at explaining why our group looks the way it does. In fact, we might decide that there are very good and very serious scientific reasons why it must look that way, and why any other group composition would be wrong. In reality, there may be nothing special about many of the dimensions of group composition other than happenstance.

Indeed, when we recognize the important dimensions of similarity, we can also take advantage of our differences. A key strength of a high performance team is its ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives, to generate diverse ideas, and to explore different and unexpected approaches. Team members must become comfortable along the axes of their similarities and their differences for that strength to manifest.

Just to make things more complicated, not all group members will always recognize which dimensions of similarity are the relevant ones for the group. For example, some people might assume gender or physical appearance is the driver, when, in fact, they are simply coincidental. Part of how a group matures is for members to connect along more significant dimensions than the merely superficial. People who cannot make this adjustment ultimately cannot remain as part of the group. Some will leave after discovering that the group is not what they thought; others will demonstrate their inability to connect along the important dimensions or will demonstrate that they are intolerant of valuable differences and will need to be forced out before they poison the team.

The team is a mirror for each of its members. It’s important to stop and reflect, and then learn to use the feedback correctly. Getting fixated on superficial similarities can break the team and lead to a great deal of bad luck.


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